Thursday, April 14, 2011

From news hound to feral beast...

June 14, 2007

The following is excerpted from a speech made on Tuesday in London by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on public life and the media

A FREE media is a vital part of a free society. You only need to look at where such a free media is absent to know this truth. But it is also part of freedom to be able to comment on the media. It has a complete right to be free. I, like anyone else, have a complete right to speak. 

My principal reflection is not about 'blaming' anyone. It is that the relationship between politics, public life and the media is changing as a result of the changing context of communication in which we all operate. No one is at fault - it is a fact. But it is my view that the effect of this change is seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted; and that we need, at the least, a proper and considered debate about how we manage the future, in which it is in all our interests that the public is properly and accurately informed. They are the priority and they are not well served by the current state of affairs.

I first acknowledge my own complicity. We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging and persuading the media. In our own defence, after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative. But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends in communications that I am about to question.

From Stanley Baldwin's statement about 'power without responsibility being the prerogative of the harlot through the ages' back to the often extraordinarily brutal treatment meted out to Gladstone and Disraeli through to Harold Wilson's complaints of the 60s, the relations between politics and the media are, and are by necessity, difficult. It's as it should be.

The question is: Is it qualitatively and quantitatively different today? I think yes.

Why? Because the objective circumstances in which the world of communications operates today are radically altered.

I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: A vast aspect of our jobs today is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.

Talk to senior people in virtually any walk of life today - business, military, public services, sport, even charities and voluntary organisations - and they will tell you the same. People don't speak about it because, in the main, they are afraid to. But it is true, nonetheless, and those who have been around long enough, will also say it has changed significantly in the past years.

The danger is, however, that we then commit the same mistake as the media do with us: It's the fault of bad people. My point is: It is not the people who have changed; it is the context within which they work.

We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. In this, the politicians are obliged to go into self-flagellation, admitting it is all our fault. Actually not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face body-line bowling without pads or headgear.

My view is that the real reason for the cynicism is precisely the way politics and the media today interact. We, in the world of politics, because we are worried about saying this, play along with the notion it is all our fault. So I introduced first, lobby briefings on the record; then published the minutes; then gave monthly press conferences; then Freedom of Information; then became the first Prime Minister to go to the Select Committee's Chairman's session; and so on.

None of it to any avail, not because these things aren't right, but because they don't deal with the central issue: how politics is reported.

There is now, again, a debate about why Parliament is not considered more important and, as ever, the government is held to blame. But we haven't altered any of the lines of accountability between Parliament and the Executive. What has changed is the way Parliament is reported or rather not reported. Tell me how many maiden speeches are listened to; how many excellent second reading speeches or committee speeches are covered. Except when they generate major controversy, they aren't.

If you are a backbench MP today, you learn to give a press release first and a good Parliamentary speech second.

My case, however, is: There's no point either in blaming the media. We are both handling the changing nature of communication. The sooner we recognise this, the better, because we can then debate a sensible way forward.
The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change but its victims.

The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by 'impact'. Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact.

Broadsheets today face the same pressures as tabloids; broadcasters increasingly the same pressures as broadsheets. The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked.

The consequences of this are acute. First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.
Third, the fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out.

Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself. So - for example - there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean, but what they could be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.

In turn, this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary.
Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course. In other words, this is not exceptional. It is routine.

The final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media. Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life's usual grey is almost entirely absent. 'Some good, some bad'; 'some things going right, some going wrong': these are concepts alien to today's reporting. It's a triumph or a disaster. A problem is 'a crisis'. A setback is a policy 'in tatters'. A criticism, 'a savage attack'.

NGOs and pundits know that unless they are prepared to go over the top, they shouldn't venture out at all. Talk to any public service leader and they will tell you not that they mind the criticism, but they become totally demoralised by the completely unbalanced nature of it.

Is it becoming worse? Again, I would say, yes. In my 10 years, I've noticed all these elements evolve with ever greater momentum.

It used to be thought - and I include myself in this - that help was on the horizon. New forms of communication would provide new outlets to bypass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media. In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five.

But here is also the opportunity. At present, we are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact. Trust in journalists is not much above that in politicians. There is a market in providing serious, balanced news. There is a desire for impartiality. The way that people get their news may be changing, but the thirst for the news being real news is not.

The media will fear any retreat from impact will mean diminishing sales. But the opposite is the case. They need to re-assert their own selling point: the distinction between news and comment.

It is sometimes said that the media is accountable daily through the choice of readers and viewers. That is true up to a point. But the reality is that the viewers or readers have no objective yardstick to measure what they are being told. In every other walk of life in our society that exercises power, there are external forms of accountability, not least through the media itself.
So it is true politicians are accountable through the ballot box every few years. But they are also profoundly accountable, daily, through the media, which is why a free press is so important.

I am not in a position to determine this one way or another. But a way needs to be found. I do believe this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair.

I've made this speech after much hesitation. I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters. But I also know this has needed to be said.


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